Rachel Kush­ner

Friday - - AUTHORSPEAK -

The Mars Room

Here’s a line I toyed with when I was just start­ing to think about this novel that be­came The Mars Room: ‘I took a Luger into Peter Luger’s.’ I heard it in an­swer to the ques­tion: ‘What got you ar­rested?’

Peter Luger’s is a fancy ye olde style steak­house in Brook­lyn. A luger is ob­vi­ously ... a luger. Why did I like this line? It’s funny. And sadly very Amer­i­can, even if the luger is a Ger­man pis­tol. The line got at some­thing I’ve wit­nessed among peo­ple who’ve been cuffed, busted, con­victed, and thrown to­gether in a jail or sher­iff’s bus or prison. Peo­ple talk up a big game. In that con­text, fic­tion is bet­ter un­der­stood than it is by fic­tion writ­ers. Peo­ple know to ex­ag­ger­ate. Their exaggerations are a kind of truth, the “vir­tu­oso-true”, as a friend of mine puts it, ly­ing only in or­der to tell you, ac­cu­rately, just what kind of [a de­plorable guy] you are deal­ing with.

I had a friend in high school who would be face down on the ground, hands be­hind his back, and he’d in­sult the cop with a boot in his neck. He didn’t care. To win in that sit­u­a­tion you have to be will­ing to lose ev­ery­thing. This same friend once es­caped from jail. When he was caught, a para­mil­i­tary Swat team sur­rounded him on an­other friend’s roof. These ninja Swat tur­tles were scream­ing com­mands, in full gear, weapons raised. My friend was go­ing to prison, no ques­tion. Later, prison killed him. But in that mo­ment, on the roof, in front of his bud­dies, he took a drag of his cig­a­rette, and said: ‘Man, you guys watch way too much TV.’

Art must be made with a com­mit­ment to gen­uine risk. The thing cre­ated must be smarter than the per­son who made it

None of this is in my novel. It’s back­ground. Tone. Per­sonal. And also: artis­tic im­per­a­tive. If I didn’t make my novel funny, I would have failed to make it true. I didn’t need the luger gag. But my char­ac­ter Co­nan, who is the se­cret heart of the novel, would make such a claim if he could get away with it.

Af­ter I wrote the novel, although I felt I suc­ceeded in crack­ing into the hu­mour of my in­vented world, a world meant to har­bour the dirty and beau­ti­ful se­crets of the real one, some­thing more sig­nif­i­cant was at stake, and had been all along. The novel is not polem­i­cal; I’m a bro­ken record on this. And it shouldn’t be wedged into the en­ter­tain­ment col­umn, ei­ther. How do peo­ple not un­der­stand this? The nov­el­ist is not com­pet­ing with TV, for in­stance. The novel aims to be a work of art. It doesn’t aim to have a pur­pose, whether it’s to com­fort, en­rage, or “in­form” its reader. Art is much more mys­te­ri­ous. What did Kant say? Pur­po­sive with­out pur­pose. What did Ni­et­zsche say? Be­yond good and evil, baby. Mi­nus the baby. Here is what I say: art must be made with a pure in­tent, and a com­mit­ment to gen­uine risk. The thing cre­ated must be smarter than the per­son who made it. My book is smarter than I am about one par­tic­u­lar thing, which I didn’t un­der­stand un­til af­ter I made it, and that one thing is this: there are many who ac­knowl­edge that those who’ve gone to prison have been born with­out luck, and that bad luck can shape a per­son, un­fairly. That is not so dif­fi­cult.

But few are will­ing to see the re­verse of it, that the lucky, too, are shaped by their luck. It is deeply tempt­ing to count oneself among the good. To see good­ness as good­ness, and not as luck. But that is an il­lu­sion. In a mod­ern, strat­i­fied, bour­geois so­ci­ety, life mostly goes how it goes due to cir­cum­stance. You aren’t good. You’re lucky. Which isn’t to say that you’re bad. But your life could have gone wildly dif­fer­ent.

This is a con­fronta­tional truth that some might ar­rive at af­ter read­ing my book, even as I did not drive to­ward, or in­tend for, the book to have that ef­fect. And yet, I’m OK with it.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UAE

© PressReader. All rights reserved.